The humble carpenter (Channing Tatum) in his workshop.
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“Yes, my God is a she”: why Magic Mike XXL is a religious experience

A carpenter who knows it is better to give than to receive? Magic Mike is basically Jesus.

The glistening surface of the Magic Mike franchise seems to glorify hyper-masculinity: posters replete with straining bulges and protruding abs, dominant stances and douchebag hats. The most heavily-trailed scene sees Mike (Channing Tatum) hard at the traditionally masculine career he abandoned stripping for in the first film, dancing as he welds in his garage.

But these concerns are cast aside as soon as Mike reunites with his old entertaining buddies, the “Kings of Tampa”, for a road trip to Myrtle Beach to perform at a stripping convention: their “one last ride”. Once Mike is persuaded to join them, he is forced to leave behind all thoughts of his furniture-making business, as Richie (Joe Manganiello) chucks his work phone from the bus. Mike later responds by gathering up their old stripping outfits, equally symbolic of stereotypically macho pursuits: hurling firefighting and military uniforms onto the street. The trappings of traditional masculinity are quite literally thrown out of the window in the film’s opening minutes. We even learn, on the gang’s first stop, that “Big Dick” Richie (the guy with, surprise surprise, the biggest dick) is the one getting the least sex because women are so intimidated by his size. Magic Mike XXL frames patriarchal ideals of manhood as redundant when it comes to pleasing women, and therefore in satisfying heterosexual men themselves.

Much has been noted about Magic Mike XXL’s attention to the female gaze, which it does beautifully, especially when Richie performs in a service station for a bored cashier: the camera turning from her eyes, to his body, and back again. But, for better or worse, this is a film that devotes even more time mediating on the ways in which attention to the female gaze can be satisfying, liberating, and even redemptive, for the male “object”. 

Richie introduces the road trip to Mike, and the audience, as a spiritual journey: "Tomorrow we start the pilgrimage to Myrtle Beach for the convention!" That the destination of this journey, the site of communion with the divine, is a sweaty Florida convention hall thick with women's bodies, makes women the unequivocal subject of devotion. The male entertainers in Magic Mike don't just serve women in their performances - they deify them. As Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), their MC, calls to the crowd: “Are you ready to be worshipped? Are you ready to be exalted?"

This extends beyond the stage: attention to female desire is given narrative prominence. Like on any good pilgrimage, the male entertainers are periodically faced with obstacles which their sheer devotion can help them overcome. The key hurdles on the road to Myrtle Beach require the men to charm, pleasure and persuade women in positions of power. They obtain a car from Nancy (Andie McDowell) after spending an evening with her and her friends, exploring their sexual fantasies. Mike impresses host Rome enough for her to step in as MC, and charms Paris (Elizabeth Banks) into giving them a high profile slot at the convention. The men often break off from their journey to try and "make women smile", simply for the joy of it. “All we gotta to do is ask them what they want,” says Andre (Donald Glover), “and when they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing”. It’s a simple principle that they apply without discrimination to every woman they meet on their journey. Black, white, thin, fat, tall, short, confident, shy: all women are treated simultaneously as equals and individuals. "Yes, my God is a she," Mike says casually.

This is a film that explicitly and repeatedly frames attention to female desire as a near-religious act. But perhaps what makes Magic Mike XXL so radical is that the male entertainers are not demeaned or humiliated by their service to women: they, too, are “exalted” by it. Their pilgrimage finally sees the extent of their devotion reciprocated by a thunderous crowd of screaming women and a shower of dollar bills. Give, and it shall be given unto you. 

Sexual devotion is a mutual, fluid exchange, and, in these scenes, it lifts both the male entertainers and their audience to a higher spiritual status than most mere mortals. “You are all queens,” Rome tells the convention hall crowd. As the famous medieval religious poem, Pearl, tells us: in heaven (or, indeed, South Carolina), all women can simultaneously be Queen, thanks to the mysterious power of divine love. “We’re like healers or something,” says Andre.

So, while it might seem excessive to compare Magic Mike with Jesus... Magic Mike is basically Jesus. He is, after all, a carpenter who lays his tools aside to feed the 5,000-strong crowd of greedy women waiting to get their rocks off at Myrtle Beach, loving each of them indiscriminately, unconditionally. As the XXL poster so playfully suggests, this film is his second coming. The reunited Kings of Tampa even rename themselves “Resurrection”, for Christ’s sake.

It’s true that Magic Mike XXL is a film with its tongue wedged firmly in its cheek. But after decades of cinema that treats men like gods for viewing women as objects, it's heartening to see a film that glorifies men for treating women like gods.

***

Now listen to Anna discussing Magic Mike on the NS pop culture podcast:

 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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The Wallets

A short story by Colin Barrett.

Doon was doing nothing, just killing time, while he waited for his mam to finish at meeting. Once she went down the steps into the basement he got out of there. The hour was too long to wait and he did not like seeing the others. There was always one freshly dire specimen hanging around outside, wrung-eyed and jitter-limbed and making a pitiable hames of trying to light up a cigarette. Sometimes he recognised the parent of some kid out of his class. He didn’t want to see the parents and he didn’t want them to see him. The meetings were another world. His mam went down there and an hour later she came back out.

He did laps of the town with his hoodie up. The drawstrings of his hoodie had little laminate tubes at the end that flailed as he walked. It was autumn, blond and ochre and umber leaves matted together and turning to slick mush underfoot. He was wearing dark olive combat boots laced tight, the ends of his combat trousers crimped into the tops of the boots. Passing an apartment block he saw something on the blue wooden slats of a bench seat. It was a wallet. He commended himself for noticing it and kept right on walking. As he walked he clenched his stomach muscles, an isometric exercise to promote definition and also a means of keeping warm.

He browsed a Men’s Fitness magazine in a newsagents, reread three times an article detailing the correct techniques for executing power cleans and deadlifts off the rack, and bought a large raspberry slushie. He’d loved slushies as a kid. Every six months or so, usually in one of the small newsagents still scattered around the town, he’d notice the plastic rotors mesmerically churning the blue- and blood-coloured ice in their transparent bins, and would buy one. Only after tasting it would he remember how nauseating they were. Three strawfuls in and there was already the sickly sensation of the syrup turning in his stomach and a bout of brainfreeze running through his head like static.

He went a few doors down, into the lobby of the Western Range Hotel. Still stubbornly sucking on the slushie, he strolled into the hotel bar. The bar was a spacious rectangle of smoked glass, carved teak and piped muzak, and went back a long way. Four men in suits were stalled by the counter, luggage cases on wheels poised beside them like immaculately behaved pets. A pair of them bid goodbye to the others, and headed towards the lobby. Doon watched the automated doors, the way they seemed to flinch before smoothly and decisively giving way. To escape the chatter of the remaining men he went and stood at the far end of the room. A recessed bank of floor-to-ceiling windows yielded a direct view on to the town’s main street, already streaming with Saturday morning shoppers. He watched the flow of bodies, the pockets of arrest within the flow. Directly across the street was the gated rear entrance to the county district court. The gating was innocuous, black bars without identifying signage, and if you did not know it led into the court, you would not have been able to tell. The gate was ajar, a concrete step leading down into the narrow mouth of an alley. In the alley a tall redheaded woman in a suit jacket was urgently conferring with a rough unit on one crutch. The man’s smashed-and-resmashed-looking face, the colour of baked clay, was tilted towards the sky. It was impossible to tell his age. He was leaning on his crutch and staring into the blazing nullity of the sky as the woman attempted to direct his attention to something in the heavy-looking black ledger she was holding tucked against her diaphragm. A page lifted up, levitated free of the ledger and fluttered down the street. The woman cursed, slammed closed the ledger, and stooped after the page as it curlicued along at shin level. The man turned his face from the sky and stared with bovine dispassion at her scooting, bobbing rump.

“You can’t eat that in here.”

Doon turned. The barman was behind him, a kid not much older than Doon with awry lugs glowing either side of his head, his black barman’s shirt squeezed over a snub-nosed paunch.

“I’m not eating anything.”

“That.” The barman pointed at the slushie. “Can’t eat that in here.”

“Don’t make me correct you again, I’m not eating anything,” Doon said, and took an emphatic suck of the slushie. From the depth of the plastic cup came a clotted suctioning noise that reminded him of being at the dentist: Snnnrgggkkk.

“C’mon man,” the barman said, his fussy little face turning the same colour as his lugs. “Just go finish it outside.”

“You get at all your potential customers like this?”

“You’re not a customer.”

“Could’ve been a case I was about to be.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“Even if you want something, you’ve to finish that outside first.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“So no one’s allowed just stand here for five minutes, make their mind up on giving you their custom.”

“Not no one,” the barman said, “but you’re you. You’ve to take that outside.”

“Nah.”

“C’mon.”

“This is profiling, lad,” Doon said.

The two men remaining at the bar were watching this exchange. The older, a tall lean man with grey hair, laughed, then cut the air with his hand, like enough.

“Lad’s got a point,” the grey-haired man said to the barman, indicating Doon with a nod of his head.

“We have a policy,” the barman croaked.

“What’s that?” The man went on, “Harass the kid with the skint head and hoodie? So he’s eating a slushie, so what? I worked in a bar myself when I was a young buck. Just let the shift see itself out if it’s going quiet, lad and don’t give patrons grief that aren’t giving you grief.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“See, listen to the oul fella,” Doon said and grinned at the man.

The man grinned back.

“Let’s resolve this simply,” the man said, taking out his wallet. “I’ll get him something, so then he counts as a customer, and we can all let him finish his drink in peace. Do you want a Coke or a coffee, lad?”

“Pint of Guinness, fella,” Doon said.

“Ha, now, lad. What age are you? I’ll buy you a coffee but I’m not buying a minor a pint on a Saturday morning.”

Doon took an extended, convulsive suck of the slushie’s remnants as the barman beetled in behind the counter. When it was empty, Doon placed the cup on the bartop.

“You’re alright so then. Coffee’s worse for you than drink,” Doon said. He considered the two men again, and grinned. “You boys are in a savagely dapper condition for this town, even of a Saturday afternoon. Is there a wedding in or something?”

The men smiled at each other. The younger one, who had a V-shaped hairline with a bald patch spreading out from his crown, like Zinedine Zidane, shook his head. “We were in for a convention. Sales conference for the NorthWest Connaught Regional Estate Agents Association.”

“Christ, I lost interest halfway through that sentence,” Doon said.

The grey-haired man grinned again.

“So,” the barman interjected, but talking to the man, not Doon. “Did you want a coffee then, or?”

“You heard me decline the fella, didn’t you?” Doon sneered. Now he turned his back on the men, to focus his ire squarely upon the barman. “Congratulations, son, three souls in your dying-on-it’s-hole bar and you’re successfully chasing a third of them off. Profiling is what you were doing.”

Doon began walking backwards towards the lobby, his face bright with contempt.

“Your mam’ll be well proud. Speaking of which, tell her I said hello,” Doon said, and stuck his raspberry-coated tongue all the way out.

He heard the two men behind him chuckle again and his leading heel struck something. “Watch,” he heard the grey-haired man say as he swung his other heel into place alongside the first. He turned, knocking over the carry cases. “Jesus,” Doon said, stepping across the two men at the exact moment they stepped forward to right their luggage. “Sorry,” he said, feinting to step one way, then another, but somehow ending up still between them and the cases. He faced the grey-haired man and grabbed hold of his forearms, as if balancing or restraining him. The man stepped back and Doon stepped with him, like a dance partner.

“Sorry, lads, sorry,” he said to the man. He was close to the man’s face. The man’s face was indrawn and baffled. Then Doon stepped off him. He turned, picked up and righted the man’s case.

“I’m all of a daze with the harassment,” he said, gripping the case’s handle and yanking it twice to extend it out, before offering the handle to the man. The man looked at it, looked at Doon, and took it. Doon was already walking straight towards the automated doors.

He went through the lobby and out on to the street. He looked left and right, because that’s what people do. He checked the wallet, took the nice big fifty, left the two tens and a fiver. He went back in, said, “Found that outside, doll,” to the best-looking receptionist, dropped the wallet on the counter and went straight back out again.

 

***

 

His mother, as usual, was one of the first ones out. She came straight up the steps with her head facing forward and did not look back. She handed him the car keys and they walked towards the car park. They passed the apartment block. The wallet was still there, on the bench, and the instant Doon knew his mother would see it, she did. She stopped. “Look at that wallet some eejit’s after leaving there.”

“Come on,” Doon said.

“Check it to see if it says whose it is,” she said, nudging him.

Doon stayed in place. “Leave it. It’s not our concern.”

His mam looked at Doon and smiled. “‘Not our concern,’” she repeated. “Christ lad, where you get your talk from sometimes. You sound like a policeman.”

“A policeman’d be over there rooting through it with his big snout.”

“I don’t mean the sentiment,” his mam said, “I mean the tone.”

“Feck off,” Doon said.

“Now, now, don’t be regressing to sewer-mouthery just cos I’ve hit a nerve.”

“You’ve NOT touched a nerve,” Doon snapped.

She placed her hand on his neck.

“I mean you’ve got this authority to you,” she said. “It’s just your way. My lad. Soul of a policeman.”

Colin Barrett’s debut short story collection, “Young Skins” (Vintage), won the Guardian First Book Award and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge